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When Criminal Justice Reform Goes Too Far

(Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

While bettering the criminal justice system is always laudable, measures that benefit criminal gangs run afoul of every principle for which our government stands.”

Last week, dramatic action to combat the Gang Crisis became associated with two principal Georgia politicians. During his State of the State address, Georgia Governor Brian P. Kemp announced that his 2020 legislative priorities would target criminal street gangs. Similarly, a local commentator called on newly-appointed Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler to propose a federal gang prosecution law.

However, the gang-crime-denying volcanoes immediately erupted. Showing their clear preference for often-violent criminals over innocent members of the community, they immediately went on the attack. Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) political commentator Jim Galloway, for instance, in a subsequent op-ed denounced reports of the Gang Crisis saying the “numbers” were grossly exaggerated. Like that column, follow-up AJC coverage included victim-indifferent, uninformed conjecture drowning out the voices of crime victims all over this nation. Other commentary argued in favor of a wildly outdated conception of constitutional priorities, as opposed to prioritizing protecting communities from criminal gangs. 

Clearly, all of these positions ignore a titanic array of academic studies, law enforcement surveys, and expert commentary demonstrating a Gang Crisis in the United States. In fact, in the past 30 days, Georgia alone has seen multiple separate joint law enforcement operations targeting gangs that operate across Georgia and the nation.

Also ignored was AJC’s own reporting showing a rise in murders in Metro Atlanta. This sort of derelict double-talk is the hallmark of mainstream media coverage on gangs. The justification, however, is telling. 

Universally, these gang-crime-deniers argue that more aggressive protections for victims from gang crime will encroach on their misguided conception of criminal justice reform. In so doing, these gang-crime-deniers have admitted what law enforcement and prosecution experts know well: namely, that criminal justice reform, as currently configured, benefits gangs, expands gang membership, amplifies gang crime, and increases the numbers of gang crime victims. 

 We have all but reached a point where we are prioritizing the interests of the lawless over those of innocent, law-abiding citizens.

By pushing for criminal justice reform absent any real measures to combat gangs, these gang-crime-deniers have effectively created two classes of citizens: one class, which is favored, includes violent gang-bangers, while the other class, their victims, has been reduced to an after-thought. Ironically, gang members are most favored by these new reforms, while their victims are ignored by a system that permits the repeated release of violent criminals. Worst yet, many prosecutors (along with politicized media parties) refuse to acknowledge the gang issue. We have all but reached a point where we are prioritizing the interests of the lawless over those of innocent, law-abiding citizens. 

While refusing to recognize the extent of the gang crisis and expressing no concern for gang crime victims, these gang-crime-deniers go a step further. Their universal response to enhanced provisions against gangs is to suggest that adopting them would somehow, “undermine criminal justice reforms,” a suggestion that implies that gang members (many of whom are violent offers) ought to be on the receiving end of these anti-victim policies. 

Clearly, at the national and state level, criminal justice reforms have proven to be a catalyst for increasing violent crime. Recent evidence abounds:

Merion West authors have discussed the horrors of systems that promulgate this bifurcated justice system between those “worthy” of protection and those who are not. As a result, many have turned their backs on those persons who need protection the most. As Alexander Zubativ explained in a recent essay, “To say it in one word, what we need is a crackdown.” 

When criminal justice reform is being used to create just that sort of dichotomy between those favored by reform and those who are not, nobody wins. And it is not just the “haves and have nots.” The group terrorizing the have-nots become favored and protected by the haves, as well. In the History of the South, those groups were well known and not prosecuted until there was federal intervention. Now, across the country, gangs are getting the benefits of being favored by those more concerned with releasing violent offenders than with protecting the most victimized among us.

Clearly, a federal anti-gang law is needed when the current criminal justice reform on the books enables the violence to continue. While bettering the criminal justice system is always laudable, measures that benefit criminal gangs run afoul of every principle for which our government stands. Those who favor victims should remind gang-crime-deniers that the Equal Protection Clause places a burden on the government to protect the innocent. That starts with stopping and dismantling gangs.

Bill Black is a Georgia attorney who graduated with honors from Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School where he was Editor-in-Chief of the John Marshall Law Journal. In addition, Mr. Black is concluding his LL.M. degree at Georgetown University Law Center and is a veteran of the United States Air Force. Among other topics, Mr. Black has previously published on the issue of improving memorials and recognition for African American veterans of World War I.

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